My New Project – The Secret Email

Years ago, I came across a book called PostSecret. It was offered up as a collective art project, and it was beautiful. People painted, doodled and scratched images onto postcards and sent them in to be included in the work.

For years, I have wanted to do something like that, but with a slight twist. Being a writer, I really wanted to focus on the written word, rather than the image. Where Frank Warren asked people to make their own postcards and send them in, I have started handing people blank, white postcards – addressed and stamped, and asking them send me a secret.

It’s my personal opinion that writers thrive on secrets. So many great stories revolve around things not said, thoughts kept private. Years ago, I was talking to a writer-friend shortly after giving birth and caught myself going into gory detail. I joked about TMI and she said “I’m a writer, there’s no such thing.”

I started handing out my postcards at AWP this year, just two weeks ago, and I just got my first one back.

Here it is:

03152016

You can read more about the details here on my Secret Email page.

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6 Tips for Forming a Writing Group

Years ago, when my friend Amy asked me if I wanted to be a part of her writing group, I was skeptical.

I was just wrapping up my masters degree, and had been a part of three different writing groups, all of which had lasted no more than a meeting or two before going down in flames. I knew having a group of writers to share work with was important (because all of my instructors had said as much), but it just didn’t seem to be working out.

Luckily, Amy knew what she was doing. Or maybe she just had really good instincts. Either way, the group of five women she pulled together was amazing. We met every two weeks for five years. It was a formative experience. Though the group has morphed, and is headed in a new direction (more on that soon), I wanted to share the things that I feel made the group so successful.

In my experience, the best writing groups:

  1. Have five members. With five you still have a group if one, or even two people have to miss a meeting. Our rule was always that if three of us could make it we kept the meeting on the calendar. (If only two of us could make it, we usually just met up for drinks.) More than five, and you have to wait too long to have your own work come up in the rotation for feedback. Five is the sweet spot.
  2. Have members that live within a few miles of each other. It’s hard to make time for a writing group, and adding a commute doesn’t help. The other, failed, groups I participated in usually started to fall apart because people didn’t feel like driving after a long day of work.
  3. Are diverse. I’m partial to all-female groups, but I loved that our group had a wide range of ages (from 20s up through 50s). Three of us were married, two weren’t. Three of us worked in academia, two did not. Of those of us who had kids, one was remarried with teenagers, and two had young kids. We also wrote in different genres. From fiction, to stage play, to memoir, to musical, we all brought something different to the group. I actually thought this would make it difficult to give feedback, but it worked fantastically and kept the group interesting.
  4. Meet on a regular schedule. We chose every-other Thursday at a member’s home. We would all get out our calendars and schedule three months at a time. I know some groups meet more or less often, but for us, that was perfect.
  5. Have an agreed upon structure. We began each meeting with half an hour of social time (or time for the chronically late to arrive). Then half an hour of feedback for one writer, followed by half an hour feedback for a second writer. We wrapped up with a half hour of time to plan who would submit next, give each other advice, talk about what books we’re reading, etc. Who ever was hosting was in charge of keeping the group on schedule.
  6. Wine. Lots of wine.

If anyone else out there has tips for forming a kick-ass writing group, I’d love to hear them.

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What I Learned at AWP This Year

AWP is a pretty epic gathering of writers. I went once before, when I was in grad school, and had to travel all the way to Chicago to do it. So when I found out it was going to be here in LA this year I signed up right quick.

AWP16

In case you’re unfamiliar, the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference is like a lot of other conference-style events, except much more awesome because it’s all about writing (that’s Jonathan Franzen there on the left). There are seminars, and panels, and parties, but the best part is the massive expo floor with hundreds of booths, almost all of which exist to promote literary journals.

For three whole days, I wondered the convention center, sitting in on sessions, and bit by bit making my way to every booth on the expo floor. I met a lot of journal editors, including some that have my latest short story in their slush piles. I shook hands, and bought a few editions. Totally worth the price of admission.

Here are a few things I learned over the weekend at this year’s AWP:

  • The Sun Magazine is looking for fiction. Not only do they pay (well), they are also a fantastic publication printing high-quality work. I sent them my latest short story, and you should too.
  • A woman on a panel, talking about how women are published at a lesser rate in most journals, noted that when they are rejected, women tend to stop submitting. Men just send another story until something is accepted. This is not to say there isn’t a bias in publishing, but women need to know that a big part of being published is simply being persistent.
  • On that note, I discovered VIDA, a non-profit dedicated to women in the arts. They actually do a count every year of the percentage of women published by major journals. You can read about it here. #wecount Spoiler alert – The Paris Review is rocking it.
  • I attended a panel about forming a writers collective. The basic idea is that you gather about a dozen or so writers that you admire and pool your resources to help promote each other. Sounds pretty awesome to me. At some point, I really want to try this, but for now I’m focusing on finishing my novel, so I have something to share.
  • Lastly, I heard a well published writer encourage us all to just keep writing. He talked about how he wrote his first novel ten minutes at a time, in the driver’s seat of his car, before going into the office. What’s more, he said that when he looks at that writing, and compares it to writing he does now (with ample time to contemplate and formulate), he can’t tell the difference. Just keep writing.

Those were the major take-aways for me, the last one being the most important. Just keep writing.

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Our First 10K

For the past 20 years I’ve spent Easter weekend in the desert, getting hammered and dancing to exceedingly loud EDM under the lonely moon. This year, I did something much more bizarre. I got up at 5 in the morning to run 10 kilometers.

starting line

Yes, we did it! My bestie and I ran our first 10K. We ran the whole damn thing, and at a pretty decent pace, too.

running

The best part was that it wasn’t so hard. And that is exciting because we signed up for this race to keep us on track with our training for a half marathon in May. Next weekend we have to run an 11K without all the fanfare, and the weekend after that it’s 12K. Basically, Saturday’s run was one of the easiest we’ll be doing over the next six weeks.

Neither of us ever would have guessed that we were runners. It’s very exciting to learn that we have skills that were just waiting to be discovered while we were partying our asses off out in the desert.

running buddie

What will we think of next?

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Talking Story with Charles Johnson

My UCLA extension class, Novel IV, ended Tuesday. I’ve said before what a great class it was, and one of the highlights was that the instructor arranged for us to Skype with the author of the book we had studied all quarter, “Middle Passage.”

Charles Johnson won the National Book Award for the book in 1990, and a quick look at his bio confirms that the man really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to writing.

We all got to introduce ourselves and ask two questions. What an opportunity. He is an incredibly thoughtful and engaging man, with a great sense of humor to boot.

Knowing that he is a buddhist, like myself, I asked him what he does if he has a story idea while meditating. He laughed and admitted it’s never happened to him. It happens to me when I’m on retreat, meditating for longer periods of time, and I never know if I should respect the practice of meditation and just let it go, or break my concentration to jot the idea down. When it happens, it always seems like the best idea I’ve ever had, and so it’s difficult to just let it go. Anyhow, Johnson’s vote was for stopping to write it down.

He said a lot of quotable things over the course of the class, but my favorite by far was about why he loves writing. He said: “Where else in life do you get to keep working at something until you get it right?” He talked about how we don’t get to edit our speech or our actions in the moments that they happen, but with fiction, we can revise until we’re happy with what we’ve got. I just love that.

I’m already signed up for Novel V, with the same instructor. It starts in two weeks, and I volunteered to be the first to submit fifty pages. So in the next couple weeks, I need to find time to polish up my first couple of chapters. Next week is AWP, and my kids’ spring break, so things continue to be hectic, but I will make the time somehow.

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Moving Day

Thursday was the big day. I can’t believe it finally came.

moving day

In honor of St. Patty’s Day, and because they’re just awesome like that, my sister-in-law and her husband brought over cinnamon rolls with green frosting, along with coffee, and we had a little moving day breakfast picnic on the dining room floor.

breakfast St. Patty's style

Then the movers arrived, and things got busy. We let the kids stay home from school, so they could see what was happening. It just felt too weird to leave the house to take them to school, then go pick them up and bring them home to another house.

This move has been one of serious mixed feelings. We loved that house. Our babies learned to walk there. We marked their growth on the wall in the garage, year by year. Here is a shot of the footprints we made by pressing Celeste’s baby feet into the wet cement of the garage over eight years ago.

footprint

We will miss Cicero Drive.

goodbye

I will post some pictures of the new place next week.

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Daily Word Count in Scrivener

I try to write 500 words every day (expect during NaNaWriMo – all rules go out the window in November). It’s easy enough to keep track on when I’m working on a new draft, or even if I just get rolling on a small segment, but when I’m at the stage that I’m at now, it gets much more difficult. These days, I monitor time spent instead of words written, but I still like to know, at the end of the day, how many words I added to my project.

So I am very excited to share that I learned a new hack for Scrivener to help with this. (Many thanks to UCLA Extension writing guru Mark Sarvas for this one.)

In Scrivener, go to the Projects drop down menu, then click on Project Targets (shortcut command shift T), and you will get a little window that pops up to tell you how many words (net) you have added in your current session. What’s more, if you click on the options button, you can adjust when the counter resets. I have mine programmed to reset every night at midnight.

SCRIVENER WORD COUNT

This function also helps keep track of total words written (I just trimmed that bit for the image above), which I like because when you’re working on a section in Scrivener, you only see the word count for that section. I find it deeply satisfying to watch my total word count creep higher and higher.

I know there are about a thousand little Scrivener hacks that I could probably use, but it’s always a fine line between learning to use a great tool and just flat out procrastinating. Some day, when I have nothing else to do, I will spend a whole day watching Scrivener tutorials on YouTube, and then I will be a Scrivener master (wha-ha-ha), but for now I will settle for finishing my novel.

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Fiction Submission Spreadsheet

lit journalsRejection is part of being a writer. If you’re not getting rejected, you’re not submitting enough, and I haven’t been rejected in years.

For a long time I didn’t submit any short stories to journals because I was working on my novel, and it just isn’t done yet. But recently I pulled about twenty pages from the middle of my novel and tweaked them to stand on their own as a short story, because it’s time to get back in the game. My thinking is that if I can get those pages published it will not only be super encouraging, it might also land my writing on the coffee table of an agent or two.

The challenge of submitting is that it’s difficult to know where to start. If my goal is to be published in a journal that an agent might actually read, I have to aim high. The last time I really submitted anything I focused on local journals, as most of my stories are LA-based, and at that point I was a student, happy to have my work published anywhere, but at this point, I feel I’ve grown a lot as a writer. I have this crazy idea that I’ve actually become quite good at my craft, and to test that idea, I am only submitting to journals that receive a lot of submissions. I want to see if I’m the cream that rises, or the low-fat milk that gets left behind.

So I set up a spreadsheet. You can view it by clicking here. If you’d like to use it, which you are absolutely welcome to do, you will have to either download it, or copy it to your own drive. You won’t be able to edit it. I didn’t want people forgetting to copy it to their own folders and accidentally sharing their entire submission history, but I do welcome comments, if you have any thoughts on how it could be better.

Here’s how I use it:

  1. I spend a shit-ton of time making sure my story is ready. I get feedback from as many people as I can, I re-write, and edit until it’s as good as I can make it.
  2. Then, I go to the Lit Mags page of the Poets & Writers website
  3. I use all the filter options (including the advanced options) to set up a search. For me, that is genre: fiction, sub genre: lit fiction, format: print, payment: any
  4. I scroll through, page by page, looking for journal names that I recognize
  5. When I see one, I click to view details
  6. I use those details to fill in columns B-F of my spreadsheet. NOTE: for circulation enter the higher number that is listed (so if P&W lists circulation as 2,500-5,000, enter 5,000)
  7. Once I’ve entered details for every journal that is at all interesting, I do a data sort based on circulation, column D. In case you’re new to this: click in column D, select all, click on “data” up at the top, and choose the first option to “sort sheet by column D, A-Z.”
  8. You will notice that there is also a column (A) for rank. That column is my acknowledgement that size isn’t everything. Sometimes certain journals rank high for me because I know an editor there, or I know that an agent I’m interested in reads that journal. So after I’ve sorted for column D, I go through and add ranks. I don’t bother ranking 1-20. I use tiers. I rank things either 1, 2, or 3. So a journal that has a smaller circulation may still get a 1.
  9. Then I resort for column A.
  10. At that point I have my game plan. I submit to the top five journals on my list, noting the date I sent in my submissions.

Then, if I’m being honest, I am overcome with anxiety, and I spend a week obsessing over my final draft, editing it for stupid, tiny things (was she on the bus or in the bus?). Then, when I’m done obsessing, I submit to the next five journals on the list.

And then the waiting begins. But waiting for the inevitable rejections (because there will be rejections), seems easier when I have a game plan. When a rejection comes in I will simply pull up my handy spreadsheet, add “PASS” to column H, and send the story to the next journal on my list. (I always use PASS. Because the truth is, not every rejection is negative commentary on my writing. Sometimes a story just isn’t a good fit. PASS is just a way of being nice to myself. )

This method has worked for me in the past. True, I am aiming higher this time, so if I get through my list and my story hasn’t been accepted, I will have to take a hard look at where I’m at. I guess at that point, I will either have to submit to my lower tier of journals, or scrap this story, write a better one, and try again. I’m not sure what I’ll do. I haven’t gotten any responses yet, so it’s a big fat mystery so far.

Keep in mind, too, that this is an investment. Ten journals, at $10-15 a submission, is going to cost a bit of cash, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot by making stupid mistakes. As an associate editor for a small journal here in Southern California, I have learned a few things by sorting through the slush pile:

  • Always include a cover letter. It doesn’t have to be long, just a few sentences saying that you are writing to submit your short story, “title here,” to “journal name here.” Get the name of the journal right.
  • Take a minute to look online at the masthead for the journal and address your cover letter to the editor by name.
  • Don’t tell them how great your story is. That can only count against you.
  • Be patient. It takes months to hear back. In fact, a quick response is almost always going to be a no, so if it takes a while, you can tell yourself that your piece has made it into the second or third round of reading, which is great.

Lastly, there is the question of reading the journals you plan to submit to. This is always a good idea, and even more so if you’re on a tight budget. You want to make sure that your work is appropriate for the journal you’re submitting to, or else you’re just throwing money away. Of course, if you have money to throw away, go crazy. I can’t imagine a journal that wouldn’t happily take your cash in exchange for a rejection letter.

Above all – don’t give up. Keep writing, keep submitting. The only difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful writer is that the successful one never gives up.

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My New Writing Desk

Moving sucks.

We haven’t moved in so long, and we’ve never done it with kids, and there is so much to do, and we’ve entered the “I know it’s here somewhere” phase. Ug. And while getting ready to move, I’m trying to get our current house ready to go on the market. I weeded and planted the garden, re-seeded the parts of the grass that had gone brown, and called in a handy man to fix a couple things inside the house.

But there are some fun chores on our list. We went furniture shopping this weekend. The new house is bigger than our current house, not by much, but enough that we decided we wanted a couple book shelves, a table for the entryway, and (drumroll) a desk for my new office!

That’s right. Two weeks from now I will be writing from my very own home office. I used to have a home office here, but when my mom moved in, mid-2012, it became her room, and then when she moved out, my daughter pushed for it to be her room, so she wouldn’t have to share a room with her little brother any more.

These days I write on the couch, or at the kitchen table. It’s okay. I don’t mind, but after a long day my neck starts to ache. Ergonomic it is not. Also, I have nowhere to put anything.

I am so excited to have a home office again. And check out the desk we found:

Hemingway Desk

It’s called the Hemingway Safari Writing Desk. How perfect is that? I love it for so many reasons, not the least of which is that we got it for a total steal from a furniture store that lost its lease and is selling all their floor models for 50% off. (I love me a bargain.)

It will be delivered, along with the other items we bought at the perfectly-time fire sale, late next week.

Just a couple more weeks of total chaos.

We are never moving again.

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No Need to Ask

Preparing to move has gotten the better of me. All I want to do is work on my novel. It is coming along very well, better than it has in a long time, and yet, life continues. Lunches need to be made, bedtime stories told, appointments attended, and then, on top of all the usual, moving.

So today I will defer my writing duties and share with you a poem by Rumi, a little beauty to ponder as we go about our busy lives.

No Need to Ask

The one who brings wine
pours again, no need to ask.

Do you ask the moon to rise
and give its light?

When ranks of soldiers dissolve,
dismissed for a holiday,

when a lost hand reaches to touch
the rescuing hand,

when a candle next to a mirrored
sconce gets lit,

your presence enters my soul.

(from The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks)

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